Fantasy or Science Fiction Sub-genre definitions


Understandably, the labelled genre of the author’s book is highly important for many reasons. This element guides the right readers to your profit-making platform, providing a far better chance for sales. For a responsible author a reader’s satisfaction is crucial. You don’t want the reader to waste their time by reading something they were not interested in. Not to mention the risk you take in receiving a bad review.


But in the crossover matrix construct of categories it is not easy to place your work in the correct genre even if you have given it your best attempt to do so. Performing some research on various sites, where no definition seems to be official, I draw some conclusions of my own. I have tried to work out an organised way of explaining and depicting the information, but if there are any definitions you disagree with please don’t hesitate to discuss it with me on my Facebook page.


It appears as if there are three steps of analysis before you can reach a conclusion. First you need to determine if your work is Fantasy or Science Fiction or perhaps a crossover of both. The second step is to determine the main category. As a third step you can assess the sub-genre within the main categories. Confusing? Let me illustrate.


Authors appear to agree on the definitions of the main genre and the category labelling. It is when you come to the sub-genres that it becomes tricky. When I say tricky, it is because there isn’t a tick-box exercise; it is all relative to your story. The dependent factor is the key in your process of analysis. This means that if you take away the dependant factor the result would a completely different story or a load of uninteresting nonsense.


Step 1. Let’s start to look at the different use and the separators between Fantasy and Science Fiction to be able to determine which one your novel should be filed under.

These factors are normally the focus the story has on the characters, location, technology or time.


Fantasy or Science Fiction

The author has set a world with its established parameters, which can be anything from the world’s nature to the government’s way of ruling. The made up rules can be anything, but should be consistent. When watching Superman there have for example been comments about how a man of steel can catch Louis Lane from falling in the air without her being cut in three parts by the pressure of the speed. Are we debating why the flying man defies gravity? So, there are some exceptions to the rule, but in the general consensus both Science Fiction and Fantasy worlds operate according to internal rules. Especially in High Fantasy where nothing is alike our world, the established rules should be followed and not be applied randomly. The same should apply to Science Fiction, although most rules are likely to be based on current scientific knowledge.



Take the example of time travel or space travel novels, they are classified as Science Fiction if the travel is instigated with the aid of technological inventions. If the travel to other worlds or places is due to ‘blinking’ or by use of magical portals it is Fantasy.



If the key element of the plot is intriguing due to the dependency of technology it is classified as a Science Fiction. The technology normally features a part of a solution to a problem, which then turns obstructive before it is conquered or under control again. If however the story would be the same without the technology because the intrigue lies with the magical forces, it is then Fantasy.



If there is artificial intelligence, characters reviving through technological experiment or human cloning through gene manipulation, it will be classified as a Science Fiction. If instead the story features characters that are enhanced due to magical, paranormal or supernormal phenomenon or the author’s invention, it is Fantasy.



If your novel primarily features the geography of a world created by the author and that doesn’t exist in real life, or places the focus on magical creatures in a depiction of our world that interact with each other and are trying to stay hidden, it most likely is Fantasy, unless we talk about made up planets in outer space. If your novel takes place in outer space or has interplanetary settings it’s more likely to be a Science Fiction novel. Novels in the real world without magic or that take a small importance in magic, would just be classified as Speculative Fiction and if it has an element of magic it is a Paranormal novel, which is a sub-genre under Fantasy. Science Fiction expands our world; Fantasy transcends it.


Science Fiction stories normally adhere to the real world’s laws of physics, but may bend them slightly, unless they are under the category of Hard Science Fiction, whose stories apply them religiously. Although the term ‘laws of physics’ could sometimes extend to ‘plausible in the future or in other galaxies where technologies are further advanced laws of physics’ To summarise; technology like in the Matrix where humans enter a virtual world due to technology which could be plausible is considered Science Fiction whilst befriending Orcs is not plausible and considered Fantasy.


Step 2A. If your novel is Fantasy then your next step is to look at the following sub-genres.


High Fantasy

High Fantasy is the most imaginary type of fantasy where the world is entirely made up as well as the creatures in it. There is also usually an entirely imagined history for the world, and many times authors include maps to help readers envision the lands in which the stories take place.


Low Fantasy

Low Fantasy novels don’t have such an extensive imaginative world as high fantasy does, but can still feature magical or made up environments as an add-on to our real world. These are stories where animals talk or paranormal creatures such as vampires or werewolves exist. It can also be a supernatural ability of an otherwise normal looking human that allows them to be stronger, manipulate reality or perform magic.


Step 2B. If your novel is a Science Fiction then your next step is to look at the following sub-genres.


Hard Science Fiction

The term Hard Science Fiction is used to describe works where the focus is on ideas surrounding science and technology, rather than on characters, settings, or “Soft Science” issues such as social change.


Soft Science Fiction

Soft Science Fiction has a storyline evolving around sociology and the interaction of people rather than the technology, though technology serves as the catalyst for exploration of social change, psychology, and interpersonal relations. Utopian Science Fiction or Dystopian Science Fiction settings are in focus around the novel’s story and thereby a subsets of this sub-genre.


Science Fantasy

Science Fantasy features worlds in which both science and magic work, or paranormal abilities are so pronounced they mimic magic, or the science is so advanced that it appears to be magic. It may be considered a hybrid of the two genres, or a subset of either one, depending on the focus and intent. These novels feature a world that is highly developed and dependent upon technology but also contain elements of High Fantasy, such as for example virtual words within the real world.


Step 3. For this article I have focused on Fantasy since that is the genre I’m writing in, hence will not elaborate further on the sub-genres of Science Fiction. If you were able to determine if your novel went under the High Fantasy or Low Fantasy category then you will be in a good position to now look at the sub-genres below. To differentiate between the aspects within the Romance sub-genres and the Contemporary sub-genres I illustrate them with these four concepts; Activity, Time, Location and Mundane or Magic.


Romantic Fantasy, Fantasy Romance or Paranormal Romance



The Romantic Fantasy storylines are entirely based on love or romance that has fantasy features or is set in a fantasy world. The heroine is often a warrior or fights against bad guys on a quest or journey, and finds herself falling into a blossoming relationship or a passionate flirtation.


A Fantasy Romance is a Romance novel with small made up elements of fantasy. It is almost a Romance novel but not quite and hence has its own genre. That means the novel is based on romance involving normal relationships.


A Paranormal Romance is when two people meet and engage in a romantic relationship where there is tension between mundane and paranormal. There is normally a dilemma whereby the heroine and hero may be separated by time, forbidden love, or even by species’ differences and lack of acceptance of each other.



The Romantic Fantasy is based in the real world but could be set in a historic period of time.


Fantasy Romance is based in current or modern times.


A Paranormal Romance can be set in any time or time visited by time travel. If it is set in an alternative history of our own world there still needs to be a separator between people that are normal for that time and the paranormal creatures, as there must exist a tension between mundane and paranormal or it would be classified as Fantasy.



The Romantic Fantasy is based in the real world where magic and magical creatures secretly cohabit the Earth, born on it or travelled to it from other universes.


Paranormal Romance is set in our real world or must at least be an alternate expression of our world. If it becomes too different and therefore depicts a completely different world you must look into the Fantasy genre rather than the Paranormal.


Mundane or Magic characters

The Romantic Fantasy includes elements where people are mythical, magical, supernatural, paranormal, or what is otherwise seen as uncommonly accepted realities, it may be set in eras of our real history and in places such as castles where swordplay is a common occurrence.


Paranormal Romancemeans that the world exists of human as well as humanoid creatures, paranormal creatures or supernatural creatures that have abilities such us for example shape-shifting, psychics, telekinesis, strength, speed or magic. The creatures can be anything from vampires, werewolves, ghosts or angels.


In the romantic couple a common dilemma is that one of the parties is paranormal and the other isn’t, or believes not to be, where the paranormal elements create a tension in the relationship.


Contemporary Fantasy, Urban Fantasy or Speculative Fantasy/Magical Realism



Contemporary Fantasy stories feature characters that accept that magic or the fantastic exist in our current reality and the story focuses on social and ethical issues as much as it does with magic.


In an Urban Fantasy the story is set in a densely populated city or village where the action in the place is the focus.


Speculative Fantasyis also often called magical realism and it includes strongly fantastic elements. It is closely related and sometimes confused with Speculative Science Fiction, which are stories that advance by scientific discovery or where technology plays key roles, but are still secondary to sociological issues.



Contemporary Fantasy is set in present time or the present time of the author.


A historical Urban Fantasy can be set in the past or it can be a futuristic Urban Fantasy.



Contemporary Fantasy features a real world where magic and magical creatures secretly exist.


Urban Fantasy is alike Contemporary Fantasy but with the difference that it is specifically set in a city or a densely populated area. The scenes can be set in clubs, alleys or in the subway system.


Speculative Fantasy is also featured in the real world but in a society or place where magic is accepted and known by all.


Mundane or Magic

In Contemporary Fantasythe fantastic is described as being weird or extraordinary.


As Urban Fantasy is a sub-set category of Contemporary Fantasy the magical element also only exists in secret and is known only by a specific group of people in comparison to the people that exist around them and aren’t aware of the paranormal activities.


In Speculative Fantasy the magical elements aren’t described as extraordinary, but simply as a part of the real world.


Dystopian Fantasy or Dark Fantasy

Dark Fantasy places less emphasis on the scary element compared to a Horror Fiction and more on the creation of a different reality.


A Dystopian Fantasy novel is about a protagonist fighting a corrupt state and is focused on a dilemma facing extinction or a post-apocalyptic scenario where the protagonist just about manages to escape.


If a Dystopian Fantasy normally involves futuristic settings and technology with a corruption of an elite. Removing these elements could make the story be confused with Epic Fantasy where the protagonists fight against a dark lord rather than a governing body.


A Dystopian Fantasy can feature extraordinary creatures that are either allies or enemies to the normal human protagonist.


Historical Fantasy, Mythical Fantasy, Fae Fantasy or Saga Legend Fantasy

Historical Fantasyfocuses on specific periods or cultures such as its sub-set genres Arthurian Fantasy, dealing specifically with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, or Fantasy Steampunk, set in the Victorian or Edwardian eras.


Fantasy Steampunk concerns itself with an alternate history, usually in a Victorian setting where steam power and clockwork are used, featuring anachronistic technology and fictional machines.


Mythical Fantasystories are generally set in our world and in some way incorporate the already existing mythologies of our cultures, such as Greek or Norse Gods.The plot normally deals more with resolving problems than with creating awe or wonderment for the creatures involved.


Fae Fantasy deals with faerie and the fey world, not to be confused with Fairy Tales. The world of faerie is a dark, an eerie, a scary and a cruel place. The creatures are beautiful, but dangerous. They often hold disdain for humans, though they interact with them. These stories are dark and suspenseful and incorporate both the human and fey world, highlighting the difference of time between the two. It combines history and legend and sometimes it involves a quest. Other times, it focuses on politics or war.


Saga Legend Fantasy explores well-known characters or stories and re-visits the sagas by giving them a new or different angle.


Heroic Fantasy, Quest Fantasy, Epic Fantasy or Sword and Sorcery Fantasy

Heroic Fantasy features a flawed conquering hero, often facing a villain that has come to rule the world or a specific place. Similar to Epic Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy is full of adventure and usually features characters that are forced into courageous roles. The difference, however, is that the focus of Heroic Fantasies are on the heroic adventures of the protagonist rather than on the journey or quest of a larger group.


QuestFantasy has a protagonist that embarks upon a vital quest. The quest is the focus of the story and its resolve, which is normally a life or death issue.


Epic Fantasy’s main focus is the plot where a conflict impacts the world at large. There is normally good fighting evil or a dilemma surrounding a moral theme.

The story world is set in a medieval or historical setting, and can be either invented or based on real cultures and places. The story features a large group of characters, which sometimes can have multiple different points of view. There are many sub-stories that describe the end plot’s predicament, which should contain a grander issue. Similar to Sword and Sorcery Fantasy it contains swordfights, archery battles or other weaponry that is violent or graphic in nature.


Sword and Sorcery Fantasy has many elements similar to Epic Fantasy, but here the emphasis is on the protagonist’s actions rather than the good fighting the evil. Sword and sorcery heroes are more likely to be mercenary than morally impregnable.


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